Bloomington pioneers and changemakers features Black leaders who have a connection to Bloomington. February is Black History Month and a fitting time to recognize the impact the people featured here have made. The people featured in this series have worked to advance civil rights and remove barriers to equity in the fields of education, faith, government, housing, law and more. In this annual series, the City honors pioneers who have done so much to chart the path to where we are today and changemakers who are paving the way for future generations.
Video interviews with the following 2022 Pioneers and Changemakers are available on the City’s YouTube account at blm.mn/youtube. New videos featuring the 2023 honorees will also be posted on the City’s YouTube and Facebook accounts starting in February.
Marvis Kilgore coordinates the Sirtify program, formerly known as the Black Men in Teaching program, at Normandale Community College in Bloomington. Sirtify has a mission of recruiting and supporting Black, African American and African people who identify as male into elementary and secondary education pathways.
“I’ve often been accused of wanting to change the world,” Kilgore said. “And I think I found a position in which I actually can.”
The program started in 2021. Sirtify offers professional support, academic support and leadership training, as well as social or cultural experiences and cultural competency training. Less than 1% of all teachers in the state of Minnesota identify as male and Black. Normandale President Joyce Ester found this to be a fitting program to help address that. Kilgore was teaching English in Qatar when he saw the job posting for Normandale and decided to apply.
“I honestly felt unsettled watching all of the social issues and the social unrest that was happening in America, particularly with people who look like me,” he said. “I just felt a call to action. I felt that I needed to move from being a passive bystander to someone more active in ensuring that things became better in the U.S.”
Njia Lawrence-Porter has been supporting and guiding students at Normandale College as an academic advisor for about 10 years. An academic advisor helps students enter college, get acclimated, and navigate programs and transfers. Many students are first-generation college students, have low income, or come from immigrant backgrounds.
“A lot of students are in survival mode in a way. They don’t think it’s possible to do what they really want to do,” Lawrence-Porter said. “We represent the diversity within the city of Bloomington and provide that space where students can really grow and become even more than what they thought.”
A first generation college student herself, Lawrence-Porter describes her journey through education and into a career, as a “curvy road, not a straight line.” She started out in business and accounting and realized after a couple of years that wasn’t a good fit. She went back to get her master’s degree in Africana studies at Cornell University. She credits the adults who helped her along the way with helping her reach her goal.
“I was raised to use my education in service of my people and all the people I get to impact,” she said. “One of the reasons I’m passionate about education, higher education in particular, is because it really allows me to help students to plan and strategize about how they’re going to get from where they are to where they want to be.”
For more than 20 years, Patricia Riley has lived in Bloomington with her husband and two sons. Riley started mentoring girls of color at Kennedy High School in 2012.
“Everyone was saying ‘Mrs. Riley, you’re mentoring a girl, you don’t have any girls!’ I said ‘I know, but I am a girl,” she said. “Some of the girls were homeless. I didn’t know that. So I went up to the school to find out what we could do about this.”
Riley felt that a person could be a part of the solution or a part of the problem. She took action to build a sisterhood. Older girls mentored younger girls who then mentored the younger girls coming in. Riley advocated for the students with teachers to ensure that the girls were on track. Out of the 18 – 20 students in the group, 16 graduated.
“The students saw that I was fighting for them and I still am,” she said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done and a lot we don’t see. So I find areas, like the Office of Educational Equity with Ms. Wade. She’s always finding things that need to be done. And I pack it up and I go wherever it is. I am volunteering. I love it. When you give your time, you give your all. Sometimes when you do things in the community, people forget. This award means people are watching and they didn’t forget. It’s nice when someone says thank you. That’s what this is to me, a thank you.”
Some may think discussions about race are uncomfortable. Luis Versalles is the director of strategic partnerships with Courageous Conversation. A big part of his work is helping people understand that race is something we can and should talk about.
“At the heart of this work is rediscovering that in our essence as human beings what is supposed to differenciate us is our ability to have a conversation. And yet so many people have been led to believe that the issue of race is just this thing that is there that I can’t really talk about. So we really shift that on its head and offer the perspective that we all have a racial story. We’ve all been racialized in this society and when you actually have the courage to talk about what’s going on for you, that’s quite powerful,” he said.
Courageous Conversation is committed to achieving racial equity in education. Before he worked with Courageous Conversation, Versalles taught at Kennedy and Jefferson high schools. In that role, he saw a full-circle of evolution from being a student who often felt “otherized” to seeing students receive support he needed as a young bilingual student.